A dramatic performance of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata in North India. Performances are generally in the regional dialect not in Sanskrit, which is spoken by few. For many in the rural hinterland before the arrival of television, a Ramlila was the only form of performance art other than motion pictures. The Ramayana is a rather long epic and for most performances it is edited down to a few crucial scenes.
Traditionally, the Ramlila is performed before the harvest festival Dusserha though you are likely to find a Ramlila performance in practically every rural fair. The performance runs over a number of days and is generally the talk of the village/town. At the end of the final performance during Dusserha, an effigy of Ravana is burnt (symbolising the victory of right over wrong), this is generally timed to coincide with Vijaya Dashmi, the anniversary of Rama's victory over Ravana. In North India the Ramlila is usually based on the dramatic form given to the epic in Ramcharitamanas (Rama, mirror of humanity) by the saint and poet Tulsidas.
Well-known Ramlilas by professional troupes are performed annually in Allahabad, Ayodhya, Varanasi. The Ramnagar ramlila is the most faithful to tradition, and runs for an entire month. A Ramlila can be performed in various styles, it might be operatic, dramatic or silent. The common thread is the tale being presented. Occassionly a children's Ramlila might be performed with puppets.
In addition to the North Indian dramatic recreations of the verse-poem, there are various other interpretive performances of the Ramayana. The Carnatic dance form Kathakali (performed in an elaborate mask and dress) presents the story in silent-theater. The puppet theater of Indonesia (Wayang Kulit) and Thailand (Nang Yai) is also based on the Ramayana theme, though the tradition has diverged greatly from the story as preserved in India. In virtually all renditions though, the germ of a battle between good and evil remains.
The most popular TV shows in India during the late 80s were adaptations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, complete with cartoonish special effects. These serialized episodes held the entire country in a rapture, for years (they are epic in length as well as subject) the streets were deserted on Sunday mornings as everyone would gather around their television (often everyone around the only television in the village).